With the 2017 season in full swing, there's no question that excitement is in the air. One of the developments that should have fans of the league and fantasy football alike thrilled is the evolution of the Next Gen Stats data tracking here at the NFL.
Through the first two years of their existence, the Next Gen Stats have quickly progressed, not only in their depth and insight but also in their utility. Now that we've spent the last two NFL seasons exploring and tracking the data provided by the microchips in the players' shoulder pads, we're ready to take the information and its practical value to the next level.
In this space, every week we'll use some of the Next Gen Stats metrics to delve into some of the top games of the week and explore individual player or team-level matchups. The hope is with some of the truly high-level analytic data we can uncover unique edges for fantasy football players when making lineup decisions for the upcoming week. Most of all, we'll be more informed consumers of the NFL contests, which we should always strive to be in our fantasy decision-making process. Let's dive into three games on the Week 9 slate that come with areas where Next Gen Stats can help cut through some of the questions.
Trade deadline reactions
Before we dig into some of the weekly matchups, it's worth examining some of the Next Gen Stats surrounding several of the players moved at this week's trade deadline. All will experience significant shifts in their stocks in their new homes.
Tyrod Taylor and Cam Newton are both mobile quarterbacks but are quite different as passers, or at least they have been the past two seasons. Taylor is one of the least aggressive quarterbacks throwing into tight windows (less than a yard of separation). He threw just 14.2 percent of his 2016 passes into a tight window, the third-fewest among qualifying quarterbacks, and his 13.3 tight window percentage is the fourth-fewest in 2017. Cam Newton, on the other hand, has thrown 19.4 percent of his passes into tight windows, which is actually down from his NFL-high 24.5 percent in 2016.
It's important to study this as it relates to Kelvin Benjamin because he's not a receiver that creates much separation. Benjamin's average yards of separation at pass forward on his routes this year checks in at 2.89, which is an improvement on his poor 2.64 but still slightly below the league average of 2.9 (wide receivers with 150-plus pass plays). Over 31 percent of Benjamin's targets this season have come when he has less than a yard of separation.
Taylor will certainly have to be more willing to throw into tight windows going forward with Benjamin in the fold. When taking those chances, he's posted strong statistical results. He has the seventh-highest passer rating (76.6) and second-best yards per attempt (7.12) among starting quarterbacks this year. On the other hand, Cam Newton is one of the worst quarterbacks on tight window passes.
Cam Newton throwing into tight windows (36 qualifying QBs)
35.3 percent completion rate (23rd)
3.25 Yards per attempt (28th)
33.6 Passer rating (31st)
The history of wide receivers changing teams is dicey, at best. However, with Buffalo's ineffective rookie Zay Jones currently leading the team with a 31.9 percent share of Tyrod Taylor's intended air yards and no other pass-catcher owning more than 13 percent, there's a massive opportunity here. If Taylor continues to progress as a tight window passer, Benjamin will make for a comfortable fit with the Bills.
The common thought is to assign blame to the Miami offensive line for Jay Ajayi's struggles this season. Indeed, the Dolphins offensive line has been a poor run-blocking unit. Next Gen Stats' "rushing yards gained before close" metric correlates well with measurements for run blocking. The Dolphins rank 26th -0.1 average rushing yards gained before defenders close within one yard of their backs (NFL average: 0.28). On the surface, it may seem like a good move for Ajayi to get away from this below-average unit, the Eagles rank 30th with -0.22 average yards before close. Especially with injuries along the offensive line, Ajayi might not be getting a direct upgrade in his run blocking.
With fewer chances in space, Ajayi hasn't been able to do what he does best; break tackles and create yards for himself. Next Gen Stats' "rushing yards gained after close" metric correlates well with running back elusiveness. Back in 2016, Ajayi was one of the top performers in this measurement, averaging 4.67 rushing yards after defenders closed within a yard of him, the fourth highest among running backs with 100-plus carries (NFL average - 3.7). Here in 2017, Ajayi averages 3.51 yards after close, ranking 21st among running backs with 60-plus carries. He's been a standout performer in just one game so far this season.
All told, getting out of the Dolphins offense can only be a boom to Ajayi's stock. Miami is the only team this year who has yet to score over 100 total points. Having Carson Wentz as his quarterback will help him find the space he needs to operate. Back in Miami, Ajayi saw 58 percent of his carries against a loaded box this year. The most of any starting running back.
The Patriots finally unloaded their backup quarterback to a team desperately searching for an answer at the position, sending Jimmy Garoppolo to the 49ers for a 2018 second-round pick. We've only had small glimpses into Garoppolo's play with just 59 throws during his two starts early last season. He completed over 70 percent of his passes and threw four touchdowns in those games.
While we don't have much data on Jimmy Garoppolo it's worth exploring two areas where he'll need to show growth in Kyle Shanahan's offense. We know that Shanahan's offense can take time to transition in, as Matt Ryan can attest to, but when it clicks, it's a tough unit to deal with and helped elevate Ryan to a 2016 MVP season.
Shanahan often asks his quarterbacks to play well on the move with bootleg plays. Jimmy Garoppolo didn't show much work outside of the pocket last season.
Jimmy Garoppolo outside the pocket in 2016
11.1 percent of his attempts
28.6 percent completion rate
55.1 passer rating
One area where Kyle Shanahan really helped Matt Ryan improve and asked a lot of him was on tight window passes. Ryan finished in the top-10 with 21.1 percent of his passes going into tight windows last season. His 49.5 completion rate on such throws only trailed Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson among quarterbacks who threw more than 200 passes. This will be new for Jimmy Garoppolo, as the Patriots create more space for their quarterbacks. Brady threw 17.6 percent of his passes into tight windows in 2016 and maintains and 18.4 percent rate this season. Garoppolo mostly operated in a similar fashion but was efficient with his chances.
Jimmy Garoppolo on tight window throws 2016
12.7 percent of his passes
50 percent completion rate
84.4 passer rating
It's fair to expect an adjustment period for Garoppolo in an offense he doesn't know yet, but there's no question he'll be an upgrade for all the pass-catchers involved in San Francisco's offense. C.J. Beathard has been remarkably poor on his tight window throws so far this season. The rookie quarterback maintains 0.63 yards per attempt on his tight window throws (NFL Average - 4.6).
Cincinnati Bengals at Jacksonville Jaguars
Jalen Ramsey allowed vs. No. 1 receivers in coverage
46.4% catch rate
62.8 passer rating
A.J. Bouye allowed vs. No. 1 receivers in coverage
31.8% catch rate
24.6 passer rating
The Jaguars deploy A.J. Bouye at right corner and while Jalen Ramsey moves around, he takes most of his snaps from the left cornerback spot. Like most X-receivers, Green typically lines up wide left (50 percent of his plays) but has seen a slight majority of his targets (49 percent) on plays lined up right wide. Either way, Green is set to run up against the dangerous cornerback duo all afternoon. There is no tougher test for an opposing wide receiver right now.
If there is one positive in Green's corner, it's his dominance in tight coverage. Green has come down with 45.5 percent of his targets in tight windows and averaged 21.8 yards per reception, making several big plays. Both figures clear the respective NFL averages of 34.4 percent and 13.3. Green can certainly hold up his end of the bargain in tight coverage but he'll have to count on his quarterback to get him the ball.
No issue is more apparent this year than Dalton's struggles when the pass rush bears down on him. The Bengals quarterback sports a 43.6 passer rating when under pressure this year (NFL average - 69.4), trailed only by C.J. Beathard and DeShone Kizer. His passer rating drops a full 49 points when he's under pressure versus when he has a clean pocket.
The Jaguars defense provides anything but a soft-landing spot for Dalton this week. Jacksonville's 35.8 pressure rate is the third-highest in the NFL this season. Two of their defenders, Calais Campbell and Yannick Ngakoue rank inside the top-10 in pressures this season with 29 and 32, respectively.
Denver Broncos at Philadelphia Eagles
If one area of his game still needs a bit of refinement, it's consistency when facing extra heat for Carson Wentz. While he's thrown an NFL-high eight touchdowns against the blitz, he's completed just 48 percent of his throws overall, fourth-lowest among quarterbacks this season (NFL average - 58 percent).
Wentz makes highlight-reel plays and big throws on occasion when facing additional pass-rushers but he still needs to speed up his internal clock to find the open receivers and hit them for chunk completions when the defense blitzes. In fact, the longer Wentz holds the ball the more his play suffers. Wentz completes just 53.8 percent of his passes when he has a time to throw of 2.5 seconds or more. Only DeShone Kizer has a lower completion rate on such throws.
Denver's pass rush has been a bit of a disappointment this year. The Broncos rank 29th in the league with a pressure rate of just 23.1 percent and have just 17 sacks to their name. For this reason, the Broncos are one of the top-10 most blitz-heavy teams in the NFL and could look to employ this approach Sunday, given Wentz's struggles. The Eagles offensive line has certainly sprouted some leaks of late and are tied with Carolina for the sixth-most pressures allowed this season (98).
If Wentz is feeling the heat Sunday, he will have an easy outlet receiver in Zach Ertz. In the middle of a dominant season, Ertz has a tasty matchup on his plate with the Broncos coming to town. While teams avoid targeting their perimeter corners, Denver does give it up to tight ends in the middle of the field. Last week, Travis Kelce racked up 133 yards and scored a touchdown against this defense. All 10 of his targets came on plays where he lined up in the slot or out wide and he leads all tight ends with 35 catches out of those spots. Zach Ertz is right behind Kelce with 26 catches coming out of a non-traditional tight end alignment this year.